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Deep-Sea Living in the Underground Tunnels of New York City
Deep-Sea Living

Easily one of the best stories we read last month came from The New York Times, and it was about a leak in the tunnels that bring water to New York City. It's no ordinary leak, we read.

For most of the last two decades, the Rondout-West Branch tunnel — 45 miles long, 13.5 feet wide, up to 1,200 feet below ground and responsible for ferrying half of New York City’s water supply from reservoirs in the Catskill Mountains — has been leaking some 20 million gallons a day. Except recently, when on some days it has lost up to 36 million gallons.

Using previously posted news items to put 36 million gallons of wasted drinking water into perspective, in May, Barcelona imported via ship cargo some 6 million gallons of emergency drinking water in the first of 6 shiploads per month for three months. Then in June, drought-hit Cyprus started importing from Greece some 14 million gallons of water per day until, presumably, this past November.

One lesson that can be gleaned from these figures is that a properly maintained infrastructure should be part of any conservation program, as important as reducing, recycling and reusing, in a climate-changed post-water world.

Deep-Sea Living

Meanwhile, the task to repair the leak is similarly extraordinary:

The city’s Department of Environmental Protection has embarked on a five-year, $240 million project to prepare to fix the tunnel — which includes figuring out how to keep water flowing through New Yorkers’ faucets during the repairs. The most immediate tasks are to fix a valve at the bottom of a 700-foot shaft in Dutchess County so pumps will eventually be able to drain the tunnel, and to ensure that the tunnel does not crack or collapse while it is empty.

This is actually the best part:

The city has enlisted six deep-sea divers who are living for more than a month in a sealed 24-foot tubular pressurized tank complete with showers, a television and a Nerf basketball hoop, breathing air that is 97.5 percent helium and 2.5 percent oxygen, so their high-pitched squeals are all but unintelligible to visitors. They leave the tank only to transfer to a diving bell that is lowered to the bottom of the oval-shaped shaft, where they work 12-hour shifts, with each man taking a four-hour turn hacking away at concrete to expose the valve.

Considering that “New York has one of the world’s most complex water systems” and that its hydraulic infrastructure will expand in ever greater complexity to meet the demands of an exploding population in the city and “upriver,” we like to imagine here a type of urbanism derived from a perpetual cycle of infrastructural repair and disrepair.

Deep-Sea Living

It all starts with a leak. Once fixed, another one is discovered immediately, and so the city dispatches another crew of deep-sea divers to disassemble the concrete and whack and wedge and screw shut a replacement tunnel.

Then more leaks, larger crews, longer time spent in aqueous near-darkness.

As the city's surface population grows to a billion — or billions — so will the denizens of its negative surface, because there is always a leak to repair in this urban ticking time-bomb of cholera and dysentery. To let it go uncaulked and flood the basements of suburbs and towns is to invite hydro-anarchy.

So with less and less opportunity to decompress, these deep-sea public works service corps will simply make camp permanently. They will live and work inside hyperbaric chambers. They will marry inside submarine cathedrals and synagogues; have children; rear them under compressive, metal-buttressed skies; drop them off to helium-filled schools; develop indigenous customs, idioms and myths.

They will even evolve a new dialect to accommodate their “high-pitched squeals.” Hydroengineering has reconfigured their biology, and so they must adapt.

They will also die there, with their bodies sent to the surface for burial.

Deep-Sea Living

It's a satellite city grafted onto an infrastructural rhizome of hydraulics; the spatial consequences not of some surface cataclysm but, to rephrase Koolhaas, of its parent city becoming a mere accumulation of minor urban disasters.

Tunnel-Digging as a Hobby

BLDGBLOG: Infrastructural Domesticity
  • Anonymous
  • December 2, 2008 at 9:50:00 PM CST
  • I think it would be in everyone's best interest not to clearly display a map of our city's water system.
    I wish some people would use their heads.

  • Anonymous
  • December 2, 2008 at 11:46:00 PM CST
  • Are you kidding me (to the above comment)? Have you heard of google? That is a PUBLIC map. Arrrrgh the terrorists aaaarrgh. Get a grip.

  • Zanshin
  • December 3, 2008 at 11:49:00 AM CST
  • That Saitama tunnel system looks like a stunning rival to the Mines of Moria.

  • Anonymous
  • December 21, 2008 at 9:21:00 PM CST
  • thanks for the post!
    diverse cultures can emerge from our cities!

  • Anonymous
  • March 17, 2011 at 1:17:00 PM CDT
  • wonderful pos!. I just wrote a blog-post on NYC's underground infrastructure a few days ago. What are the odds of being redirected to this page approximately 2 years after it was written :P. This underground stuff is quite interesting though.

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